Oklahoma’s Largest School Districts Now Led by Black Women, Making State History

Jamie Polk says she is ‘deeply honored’ to take OKCPS superintendent office Monday.

Oklahoma City Public Schools' incoming superintendent, Jamie Polk, sits the school board horseshoe during a meeting June 3 at the Clara Luper Center for Educational Services. (Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

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OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma reached a new milestone on Monday with a new superintendent taking office in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

For the first time, Black women are simultaneously leading the state’s two largest school districts, OKCPS and Tulsa Public Schools.

Jamie Polk stepped into the OKCPS superintendent role on Monday, succeeding Sean McDaniel.

Ebony Johnson became the first Black woman to lead the Tulsa district, the state’s largest by enrollment, when she was picked to be interim superintendent in September and hired permanently in December.

Polk said she looks forward to working with Johnson to enrich students’ educational experiences and opportunities.

“It is our shared belief that every child should see themselves represented in the educators and leaders who guide them in their educational journey,” Polk said.

Tulsa schools did not return a request for comment from Johnson.

When Johnson was promoted in TPS, Oklahoma had only one other Black female superintendent working in the state at the time — Cecilia Robinson-Woods at Millwood Public Schools.

Robinson-Woods said she sees Johnson’s and Polk’s hiring as a “big step” for women, especially Black women, to be given the confidence and trust to lead a school district.

It’s also a boost in representation of groups that aren’t always well served, she said.

“It is not a secret that minority children, especially Black children, have the lowest test scores in everything,” Robinson-Woods said. “It’s not to say just because you have someone of color that things are going to change for those learners, but it does at least give you an insight, and it does at least broaden the conversation about what kids need.”

Research has shown a positive impact on minority students’ test scores and long-term outcomes when they have a teacher of their same race.

But the demographics of educators and school leaders in Oklahoma public schools are vastly different from that of the students they serve, according to state data from the 2022-23 school year. While 77% of public educators in the state are white, more than half of all students are racial or ethnic minorities.

Having diverse leadership is important in districts that want to prioritize equity, said Karlos Hill, regents’ associate professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“We care about equity both in terms of making sure our kids are fairly educated, but we also should care about the people who are educating them,” Hill said, “and making sure that there’s a diverse group of, not only teachers, but diverse leadership to make sure that the policies (and) the procedures of the school are not just reflective of one group, but of the community.”

Hiring Black female superintendents is significant in the context of the state’s “long and deep history of exclusion” for people of color, said Hill, who is also the OU president’s adviser for community engagement.

That history, he said, is the reason Oklahoma didn’t reach this milestone decades ago.

“If we care about equity, we will care about that history of exclusion and the ways in which it shows up today,” Hill said.

Unlike in Tulsa, there are Black female predecessors in the Oklahoma City superintendent’s office. The first was Betty Mason in 1992, who also was the first woman and the first African American superintendent to lead OKCPS.

“We all owe her a debt of gratitude for setting the stage for the historic moment we find ourselves in today,” Polk said.

The new superintendent said her district will continue to recruit diverse teachers through its “Grow Our Own” program. The initiative, founded in 2016 at the OKCPS Foundation, covers the cost of a teaching degree for paraprofessionals working in the district.

Twenty-five teachers, most of whom are bilingual or racially diverse, have earned a bachelor’s degree through the program so far, and another 81 are on track to graduate this summer. The OKCPS Foundation launched a similar program to support aspiring school administrators who want to earn a master’s degree.

Sen. George Young, D-Oklahoma City, said he hopes Polk will continue to emphasize the teacher pipeline program and overall teacher pay. Young has represented the historically Black area of northeast Oklahoma City in the state Legislature for 10 years and is a pastor in the community.

“When you’ve got folks who look like you standing in front of you, it does make a difference,” Young said. “It doesn’t make all the difference, but it sure does make a difference. And so I hope that she will remember that and see the things that made a difference in her life. And I think that’ll make a difference in the life of our school district.”

An Iowa native, Polk spent 25 years as a teacher, principal and district administrator in Lawton Public Schools, where she moved because of her husband’s military career. McDaniel, the outgoing OKCPS superintendent, hired her in 2019 to oversee the district’s elementary schools.

Leading the neighboring district of Millwood, Robinson-Woods said she’s gotten to know Polk as a “very personable” leader and a data-driven problem solver.

Similar descriptions have been applied to Johnson, who is trying to engineer an academic turnaround amid heavy pressure from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Johnson was raised in Tulsa and spent her entire career in the district when the local school board promoted her from chief academic officer to superintendent.

Like Johnson, this is Polk’s first superintendent job, one she said she’s “deeply honored” to accept.

“Moving forward, OKCPS will remain steadfast in our dedication to cultivating leadership that reflects the vibrant tapestry of the communities we serve,” Polk said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on Facebook and X.

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